On the night of November 14, Zimbabwe’s military announced that it had taken the president, Robert Mugabe, into custody. This initiated the bloodless coup d’état that unfolded last week, aimed at ridding the government of “criminals.” And it was successful; Mugabe resigned on the twenty-first.
The real criminal, however, is not the president but the first lady, the notorious Grace Mugabe, who had been eying her husband’s presidency since she entered the political stage.
Who is Grace Mugabe?
Grace Mugabe is the wife of the former president and is forty-one years his junior. She is referred to as “Gucci Grace” due to her extravagant lifestyle and expansive closet (despite her country’s abject poverty). She is also known for her hot temper and arrogance; she famously assaulted a South-African model in August. In addition, she is under EU sanctions for illegal land acquisition and rigged elections.
But that is only the beginning of the problem.
Grace has been involved with many sex scandals, both before and after marrying Mugabe. Before she met Mugabe, she had been married to an air force pilot with whom she had two children. Mugabe, too, had had a wife prior to Grace. Grace then began working as the president’s secretary. The Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) of Zimbabwe recently released information that Grace went on overseas trips and engaged in sexual relations with Mugabe while she was still married to her first husband in the mid-1980s. In 1987, she filed for a divorce from her first husband, and two years later she married Mugabe and gave birth to their first child.
The sex scandals did not stop there. Even after marrying Mugabe, Grace reportedly had affairs with businessmen working for her husband—one of which resulted in two abortions. This pattern of asking for favors and repaying with intercourse carried well into the early 2000s as her prestige increased. It was clear she was using sex to advance her personal goals.
Grace’s Rise to Prominence
Grace profited immensely from her new position as first lady. Only two months after enrolling in the University of Zimbabwe, of which her husband is the chancellor, she received a doctorate. In 2010, proof surfaced from WikiLeaks that she was making a personal profit off of the country’s diamond mines; this illegal trade allegedly supplied Grace and her business partners multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars each month, all while the citizens of Zimbabwe grappled with extreme poverty (the GDP per capita of Zimbabwe in 2010 was just over $700 USD).
In 2014, Grace was designated head of the Women’s League of her husband’s party, ZANU-PF. From this seat, she exercised immense power, and she used it to diminish that of her opponents. She began by speaking out against her husband’s rivals while touring the Zimbabwean provinces. Grace then led successful accusations against Joice Mujuru, her political rival, who was in line to take over for Mugabe. This resulted in Mujuru’s removal from the candidate pool. It was clear that Grace had her sights set on the presidency.
After increasing her own power, Grace began to tamper with her husband’s.
Corrupting the President
Today, most agree that Grace is the one responsible for her husband’s downfall because of the immense amount of influence she began to exert over him. This started with ZANU-PF.
For years, ZANU-PF had been rife with tension over who was to succeed Mugabe. Grace capitalized on her husband’s position, compelling him to use his powers so that she could take control of the party.
Emmerson Mnangagwa—a senior member of ZANU-PF, the first Vice President of Zimbabwe, and a long-time ally of Mugabe’s—posed the biggest threat to Grace’s ascension to the presidency. He held many administrative positions under Mugabe and served as his campaign manager in the late 2000s.
But seeing that Mnangagwa was favored to succeed Mugabe as the next president, Grace needed to act. After Mnangagwa claimed to have been poisoned, Grace convinced her husband to call for a cabinet reshuffle, resulting in Mnangagwa’s loss of his position in the justice ministry. In early November, Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, and soon after, Mnangagwa fled the country. This was the tipping point that triggered the coup.
In a trajectory familiar to all of those who have read Shakespeare's Macbeth, Grace’s abuse of her husband’s power became uncontrollable, thus catalyzing the coup. Mugabe was placed under house arrest, and Grace fled the country. Her whereabouts and future are unknown, but what is certain is that the power that she had consolidated for herself has and will continue to dissipate. In fact, Mnangagwa was sworn in as the new president following Mugabe’s resignation. Her elaborate quest for power has been destroyed.
Why didn’t anyone do or say anything?
What remains a mystery to many is the fact that even though Grace was so clearly vying for power (and doing so unjustly) since her political debut, it took the government and the global community so long to react. Why?
Perhaps there was a sense of helplessness, certainly within ZANU-PF, seeing as Grace had no difficulty removing anyone who posed a threat to her plans. Officials whose power rested within the party would not want to risk losing their positions after witnessing firsthand what happened to Mujuru and Mnangagwa. As for Mugabe, he would never have spoken out because he was married to her, and it follows that no politician would have wanted to defy the president.
That could account for politicians in Zimbabwe. But what about those outside? Global leaders failed to recognize the urgency of the situation; it was only when the coup began that people recognized the threat that Grace posed. We’ve seen this happen before with other sub-Saharan countries such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, who were left essentially alone to handle their instabilities. It seems as though the international community is less inclined to aid countries that are impoverished and less involved in global affairs.
When a woman like Grace enters the arena, it is the responsibility of those both inside and outside the country to recognize the warning signs before a coup is needed. And they were there; the sex scandals, abuse of her husband’s power, and stifling of the opposition should all have been enough proof that Grace was willing to go to unlawful lengths to achieve power from the beginning.
Noa Levin is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.
Noa Levin is a first-year undergraduate studying Political Science. Aside from writing for The Gate, Noa is doing research with Professor Paul Staniland and is serving as a Research Director for The Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She comes from New York (and therefore has high standards for pizza) and enjoys watching Seinfeld in her free time.